In the lead up to the Brexit referendum, several Christian groups claimed that the Bible predicted a Leave vote, including many Christadelphians. When the Leave vote succeeded, they were quick to claim this trivial prediction as a stunning validation of the complete Bible message and a sign of impending Armageddon. However, while Brexit still seems likely to happen in some form, this year has seen it throw the UK parliamentary process into chaos, with no clear end in sight.
While I don’t think scripture makes any statement on Brexit, I do think this saga has some important lessons about Bible prophecy interpretation that stretch far beyond Brexit. It’s all here: A crystal-ball gazing seer, Armageddon, even a reference to my favourite fiction from last year. Some of it is mocking, but I don’t apologise - if Christadelphians didn’t want that, they should have chosen something better than Brexit to nail their colours to the mast over.
On the spot for a referendum
As it happened, I was in London as a tourist on the day of the referendum. It was a wild and wet day, so much so that the railway line I had used the day before was closed due to flooding. The polls had been tightening, but still predicted a Remain victory, and before I went to bed Nigel Farage had appeared to concede the vote. So it was certainly a surprise hearing the following day that Leave had actually won - but it’s important to remember it was well within the bounds of probability.
Many of the Christadelphians who had been predicting a Leave vote jumped to proclaim it as a fulfilment of prophecy against all human odds. I saw some of it on Facebook, and, since it was less than two months since I had formally resigned, it was unsurprising that a few tried to drag me into it.
I even saw a suggestion that the weather in London had been God’s hand at work to fulfil his plan, which I think is problematic (London doesn’t have the population to overrule the rest of the UK, and I have serious problems with the idea of a god who would deliberately disrupt the lives of millions to achieve a minor point in his oh-so-perfect plan).
A few weeks later I met up with a Christadelphian friend for dinner, and he said it was embarassing how much Christadelphians had reacted to Brexit. And I’m inclined to agree - the jubilation about getting one tiny prediction right, in the face of polls that said the result would be close, does seem like an overreaction. Unless perhaps it was guided by relief after a number of wrong predictions?
Did the Bible predict Brexit?
In my opinion, the first important question that should have been asked is “Does the Bible really predict Brexit?” And my answer to that would be “No”. The Bible didn’t predict that Britain would join Europe, so of course it didn’t predict they would leave Europe again. In fact, I would go further and state that I don’t think the Bible talks about Britain today at all, whether directly or indirectly. Rather than peering 2,000+ years into the future, I think the prophets were addressing people and events in their own times.
This leads me to a first important principle: When talking about Bible prophecy fulfilment, we need to distinguish between what the Bible actually says and how it has been interpreted.
So how did Christadelphians get here? Since I never accepted traditional Christadelphian prophecy interpretation, I’m not expert. But I think it looks something like this: They expect a future Armageddon with Britain as Tarshish and the King of the South, a united Europe as the Beast of Revelation, and Russia as the King of the North. Britain being part of the EU is considered incompatible with this, both because Britain is meant to be a completely separate entity, and because they expect the EU to become more tightly integrated - a process that Britain has blocked.
What this means is that the Bible didn’t predict Brexit - just that Brexit could possibly help set up one of the pre-conditions for fulfilment of the actual prophecy (Armageddon). And anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who rejects the Christadelphian interpretation of the Bible can also reject the claim that the Bible predicted Brexit.
Similar reasoning led some Christadelphians to predict that Britain would never enter the Common Market. And as far as I know they didn’t abandon the religion in droves when this prediction proved wrong. Instead, they concluded that the Bible was still true - it was just the interpretation that was false. And I’m sure most would have done exactly the same if the referendum result had been Remain - and yet they want everyone else to think it important when it came up Leave.
More Brexit predictions
Recently, I read an article published the day after the referendum. The headline was “Bible Prophecy Foretold a Brexit!” And inside was this:
God’s prophecies have led [us] to declare that Britain would not be part of the European Union. [We have] boldly proclaimed it would either be kicked out or leave - and that prophesy was right! (Source)
Sound Christadelphian? Actually, it comes from The Trumpet, which is based on the prophetic interpretations of Herbert W Armstrong. And it seemingly goes on to address my earlier point, that the Bible doesn’t talk about Britain:
Even if you believe Bible prophecy is true, to unlock what it prophesies, you still have to know who the prophecies are about. The Bible does not use the names Britain, the United States, Russia or Germany. But it absolutely prophesies about these nations in this time period. To unlock the true significance of the Brexit vote - and what will happen next - you need to know how the Bible identifies these world powers.
However, its interpretation is based on Britain being Ephraim, the USA being Manasseh, and Germany being Assyria. The story of Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973 is presented in the words of Hosea as Ephraim going to Assyria rather than turning to God.
Just like the Christadelphians, they have unquestionably made a correct prediction. However, their teachings seem contrary to one of the Christadelphian Doctrines to be Rejected:
33. That the English are the ten tribes of Israel, whose prosperity is a fulfillment of the promises made concerning Ephraim.
Similarly, I’ve seen other interpreters making Brexit predictions based on a view of the Beast like the traditional Christadelphian interpretation. However, they saw it as a preparation for the Rapture and the Antichrist - ideas that I think Christadelphians would reject. And they’re all basing their interpretation on the same books.
Which brings me to a second important principle: The correctness of a prediction does not establish the correctness of the interpretation leading to that prediction.
To take a very simple example, once it became a referendum question, even flipping a coin would have had a 50% chance of making a correct prediction, and (hopefully) nobody would have concluded as a result that the coin was a reliable prophet. However, even before it became a referendum question, it wasn’t exactly news that there were plenty of people in the UK who weren’t happy with the EU. There was talk of people who had an “island nation” mentality, who looked back to the glory days of the British Empire. There were many people who saw they were getting a raw deal and thought it was the EU’s fault.
Even though the prediction was correct, there really is no need to infer intervention by a divine being.
So where are we at now?
After the referendum, I think Christadelphian interest died down a bit. After all, the process was going to take time: First Article 50 had to be triggered, then there would be a two year period to negotiate a new deal, and then a transition period. I kept an eye on the Brexit process, but not because of prophecy: I work for a UK company that would be affected by it.
At the start of this year there had seemed to be a clear deadline: 29 March. Yes, there had been difficulty getting Theresa May’s deal through Parliament, but she had insisted that “Brexit means Brexit” and there continued to be preparations for a No-Deal Brexit on March 29.
And even here in Australia Christadelphians responded to that deadline. I saw that an ecclesia near me had a lecture on 31 March entitled “The Bible predicts Britain’s exit from Europe”. I presume it was deliberately scheduled for the first Sunday after 29 March.
However, before the lecture actually came off the deadline had been extended to 12 April. There was a protest on 29 March, which some Christadelphians used as a preaching opportunity:
And it was this sign that got me thinking about this article - way back in early April.
At the time, Theresa May was Prime Minister, Brexit had been extended to 31 October, and there were talks with Labour to try and deliver Brexit. MPs had taken control of Parliament to run a series of indicative votes on different Brexit options, and none of them were able to achieve a majority. Both a second referendum and an election were being openly talked about.
Consider how much has changed since then: Both Labour and the Conservatives did badly in European elections, with many Leave voters voting for the “Brexit” party and many Remain voters voting for the Liberal Democrats. Theresa May stepped down as Prime Minister, and was replaced by Boris Johnson. The official stance swung from striking a deal to Brexit at all costs, but the government were completely unable to get a majority in the house. They were forced to apply for another extension, making the current Brexit date 31 January.
There have been some pretty extraordinary events: The Boris government lost its first few votes in Parliament, in part because of Conservative MPs voting against them. They then expelled those MPs from the Conservative party, including one who had been Chancellor in a Conservative government a few months before. Finally, there will be a rare winter election in a couple of weeks, which may or may not assist with breaking the Brexit deadlock.
What comes next?
I don’t know what will come next - but then, I don’t claim to have a direct line to the omnipotent creator of the universe. At times it has seemed like the details keep changing from week to week, but the prophetic basis remains exactly the same: completely inadequate.
Currently, the polls favour a Conservative victory by a significant margin, and I think it’s most likely that the UK will leave the EU, either with a deal or without. But the reality is that it’s more than three years after Christadelphians triumphantly predicted Brexit, and they clearly have no more idea of what will happen next than I do. None of this chaos was included in their predictions, and I’m not sure that the terms of any possible Brexit deal would meet their expectations for Brexit.
Looking beyond Brexit, there is also talk about the possible break-up of the UK. For example, it’s possible for Scotland to gain independence and seek to rejoin the EU. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it’s also possible for Northern Ireland to became part of the Republic of Ireland.
I have no idea what Christadelphian prophecies would say about these possible outcomes, and I’m not sure they do, either. All they can do is maintain their confidence that Britain will leave Europe. Sometime.
Ignoring failed past prophecies
Given how prominently the banner I showed earlier quoted John Thomas, the founder of the denomination, I thought it fair to check the context of the quote. It named the “ten toe kingdoms” of Europe, including kingdoms that no longer exist like “Lombardy” and “Bavaria”, and stated that Britain would only be part of Europe if Russia conquered it, since “Russia will command the land, and Britain rule the sea”. It’s clear cherry-picking to present one “correct” prophecy and to ignore the incorrect ones (similar to what is done with his prediction of the return of Israel).
I think it’s instructive looking at past times where interpretation of the same prophecies have failed. After all, the Brexit referendum wasn’t the first time Christadelphians made predictions about Britain’s place in Europe.
I reviewed articles in The Testimony for 1972 and 1973 (before and after Britain entered the Common Market) and in 1975 (when the In campaign decisively won a referendum on European membership), and found contributions like this:
We were certain that Britain would never enter the European Economic Community. Again this writer must admit to having propounded from Daniel and Revelation that this could not possibly happen, but on January 1st, 1973, it did happen. In our zeal to hurry along the purpose of God we have often rushed in where angels fear to tread, and have been proved wrong.
Though the author then concluded:
The coming of the Lord is a certainty, but let us not try to fix the day or the year. He will come in an hour when we think not. Let us be alert and ready for there is good reason to believe that the time is almost upon us.
I think this exposes a deep problem with Christadelphian prophecy interpretation: The assumption that the prophecies will be fulfilled. What this means is that false predictions can never invalidate Bible prophecies.
For me, this is a familiar refrain in family Bible readings: A prophecy is read, and someone asks “So when does this prophecy apply to?” And the predictable answer comes: “Well, it’s got to be in the future, because it hasn’t happened yet.” Most commonly such prophecies are assumed to be fulfilled at the return of Jesus (any day now!)
Sometimes a part of the prophecy will be considered to have been fulfilled, with the rest deferred to the end times. Or maybe someone will suggest a dual fulfilment: Even though part of a prophecy is considered to have been fulfilled in the past, the entire prophecy is expected to be fulfilled at some future time.
However, no-one stops to consider that it might not have been fulfilled because the prophecy was incorrect. In my opinion, this makes it impossible for a believer to use prophecy fulfilment as evidence for belief. Otherwise it becomes somewhat circular: Fulfilment of prophecy is presented as evidence, but the rules of interpretation require the believer to find a fulfilment or to dismiss it as not yet fulfilled.
Principle three: We can’t correctly assess prophetic fulfilment if we already assume they will be fulfilled.
Present day event bias
In 1975, I found another author writing about the traditional view of prophecy. He argued that, while the traditional view was broadly correct, some details needed tweaking in light of current events:
There is no doubt that John Thomas’s expositions of prophecy laid an invaluable foundation for those who followed. His identification of part of the great confederacy of Ezekiel 38 with Russia, latter-day Babylon with Roman Catholic Europe, and the Tyre/Tarshish mercantile power with English-speaking nations have stood the test of time remarkably well despite being challenged by some in recent years. Yet a critical examination of his views does reveal flaws. His exposition naturally reflects the political arena of his day and he therefore exaggerates the importance of Britain compared with the USA, and of France compared with Germany.
Though details might be wrong, he concluded that it is important to accept the inevitability of Jesus’ return, to study the Word, and to stand firm in the Truth:
It is most desirable that brethren and sisters should study the Word, striving to understand the times in which they live, and to see the inevitable approach of that Divine intervention in human affairs which all true Christians look for.
Troubled times face us and we will need all the help we can get from the prophetic Scriptures in order to stand firm in the Truth.
He returned to the theme later in the year, writing about Ezekiel 38:13:
The traditional view of this verse is that it speaks of the mercantile power of Britain and her colonies allied with certain Arab powers opposing the Gogian hordes which pour into the land of Israel. The prominent place of Britain in this interpretation of the prophecy was natural in nineteenth-century interpretations, for Britain was then pre-eminently the world’s greatest sea-power as Russia was the world’s greatest land power, and it was the purpose of British foreign policy to block the Russian advance into the Middle East. However, Britain has declined to a third-rate power and it no longer seems possible for her to fulfil this role. Yet she has been succeeded by another English-speaking power, the U.S.A., and, if the traditional interpretation has any validity, as the writer believes it has, it is to the U.S.A. that we must look to fulfil it.
I think this interpretation actually removes any need for Brexit: Why would Brexit be needed if the prophecy is actually to be fulfilled by the US? Similar to the previous author, he assumes that all prophecies will inevitably be fulfilled. However, I also think the article shows another common problem: Assuming that those prophecies will be fulfilled soon.
He rightly observes that John Thomas’ interpretation reflects the political arena of his day - but I’m not sure he realises how much this also applies to his interpretation. Today the US is stronger than Britain, but I’m not sure it’s as strong as it was in 1975. It may still be a dominant nation in 50 or 100 years, or it may not. Maybe other powerful nations will emerge, and some Christadelphians will take them as fulfilment of prophecy while others will stick to the interpretation of the pioneers.
This is shown even more strongly by Christadelphian interpretation of the role of Russia. As I understand it, after the fall of the USSR, some interpreters looked for another nation to take Russia’s place in Christadelphian prophecy, while others maintained it had to be Russia. Then in more recent years, as Russia regained power and influence, the traditionalists said “See, we were right all along”, and pencilled in Putin as “Gog”. Also, as pointed out earlier, John Thomas expected Russia to control Europe, while some Christadelphian interpreters now argue that “Russia” and “Europe” will oppose Jesus’ return at different times. Give it another 50 years, and who knows what the political balance will look like and how Christadelphian prophecy interpretation will have been changed to match.
The common thread is changing the interpretation of a prophecy based on the assumption that we are in the time of the end and Christ’s return is any day now. And Brexit forms a small part of this: In the years before the referendum was called, I don’t remember anyone saying “Jesus’ return can’t be yet, because Britain is still part of Europe”. I only saw it being talked about once it was a current event, and I’m not sure anyone would have lost their faith if the referendum had returned “No” or if Article 50 had been revoked six months ago.
Taking the long view, none of this makes sense. I am fairly sure none of the original readers of Ezekiel or Revelation had either Britain or the USA in mind.
The soon return of Jesus has been promised for nearly 2,000 years, and for most of that time if anyone noticed those prophecies I’m sure they would have had different candidates. Within that time, there has been maybe a couple of hundred years when Britain was a credible candidate, and at most a hundred years when the US was a credible candidate. Britain’s period of empire did overlap with the early years of the Christadelphians, which seems to be why it has received such importance. But I don’t think either the prophecies of Jesus’ return or this specific Christadelphian interpretation have “stood the test of time remarkably well”.
The important thing to remember here is that we are looking for the fulfilment of Bible prophecies, not of details drawn from Christadelphian interpretations of Bible prophecies. And in that regard nothing of these passages have been fulfilled. The prophecies are of one or more Armageddon like events and the return of Jesus.
I can’t stress this enough: These events have not happened. They are completely unfulfilled, and show every sign of remaining completely unfulfilled.
The Christadelphian fixation on present day events, like Brexit, ignores the fact that the prophecies are no more fulfilled now than they were in 1848 or in 100 AD. The shifting balance of power between the different nations in today’s world may alter Christadelphian interpretation of prophecy, but does absolutely nothing to fulfil those prophecies. In the words of Harry Whittaker:
The study of politics has been turned into a kind of Christadelphian parlour game - the only kind of politics valid for the unpolitical.
(though he suggests replacing it with a fixation on present day events in Israel, which to me looks doubtful seventy years after the state of Israel was established).
And Christadelphians aren’t the only ones letting present day events alter their interpretation of prophecy: One of the reasons The Trumpet argued that Britain and the USA had to be Ephraim and Manasseh was because no other nations today fit the bill as well. I think it’s rather circular to claim your prophecy has been fulfilled when you’ve had to alter the interpretation of the prophecy to make sure it was fulfilled.
Principle four: Assuming that prophecies which have been around for thousands of years will be fulfilled in our time changes the way those prophecies are interpreted.
The seer speaks
I see the Christadelphian predictions about Britain and Europe as very similar to a seer gazing into a foggy crystal ball. There’s plenty of dogged determination, yes, but no new or useful prophetic information emerges.
So now we bring you a brief interlude, sponsored by our favourite deity. Perhaps the transcript looks something like this:
Seer: Through the mist, I can see a vague image of Europe, and lo, Britain is not of them.
Inquirer: You mean Britain will not enter the Common Market?
Seer: Nay, the prophetic oracle is worn out. Put it away, and ask me no more till the time of the end.
Inquirer: I get it now - you mean Britain will vote Out in the referendum? I must admit I was a little worried by us entering the Common Market.
Seer: Nay, nay, details do not become a seer.
Inquirer: I see now - you mean there will be a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum?
Seer: I told you, this isn’t about the details. Just have faith.
Inquirer: Leave won! Clearly this is what you were prophesying all along! Pity we misunderstood in 1972 and 1975, but I’m so stoked this is it! Next year in
Jerusalem Armageddon! God’s ways are awesome, and I’m glad I’ve proven to be on the right side.
Inquirer: What gives? I thought 29 March was the day.
Seer: When did I ever tell you Brexit was on 29 March? My crystal ball doesn’t go into details like that. It is a genuine antique powered by faith, and its correctness should not be determined by this modern obsession with empirical study or reproducible results.
Inquirer: Well, what does your ball say now?
Seer: How many times must I repeat myself? You know the message: Britain will not be among them. What more do you need? Leave me, and ask again at the time of the end.
Inquirer: But isn’t the time of the end soon?
Seer: Nay, I can’t tell you that. My ball remains filled with a swirling mist, which can be twisted into almost any shape I want. But wait! There is an important reminder from our sponsor peeking through the mist.
Inquirer: What reminder?
Seer: “What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” After all, it’s not like you broken sinners have anything more important to do in this life.
The power of hope
I don’t think the various end time prophecies were about our time. I don’t even think they were looking too far ahead. So what do they really mean? I think Brandon Sanderson puts it well in the Mistborn trilogy:
Prophecies do not have to be a scam, Mistress. Or even, really, a promise for the future. They can simply be an expression of hope.
(though, in fairness, I have to say that some of the Mistborn prophecies turned out to be spookily accurate in a way that Christadelphian interpreters would kill to see).
Consider some examples:
- Ezekiel presents the hope that his nation will return from captivity.
- Daniel presents the hope that Antiochus Epiphanes will not be able to desecrate the Jewish religion forever.
- Revelation presents the suffering Christians as on the right side of history, and offers the hope that soon Jesus will come to fix everything and
GoodChristianity will triumph.
Interestingly, looked at this way, Ezekiel and Daniel both succeeded to some extent. No, the details don’t match, which is part of why Christadelphians look forward to an unlikely future fulfilment. But the main hope they looked for actually came to pass - perhaps partially because of the encouragement given by the prophecies.
Hell, in that sense even Revelation can be seen as a success: The church became the state religion of the Roman Empire and later gained control of much of Europe. And we’re still recovering from the darker parts of that legacy.
Consider how we deal with politicians: Yes, we get annoyed that they haven’t kept their promises, but we wouldn’t call them false prophets. I think that a lot of what politicians offer is hope - often hope of change. In some cases, we might say that they wanted change and that they tried to encourage change, but didn’t quite succeed. And, even though they didn’t succeed, they may have shifted the conversation enough that it’s more likely to happen in future.
This can also be seen in Brexit campaigning. The Leave campaign in particular offered hope - hope that the English could “take back control”, that everyone’s problems would be solved, and that England would once again be a great nation. I’m not sure that hope was realistic, but it was certainly an effective message.
Principle five: The prophecies were not meant as an infallible crystal ball for us. They offered hope, nothing more, to those who heard them.
I expect signs-watching Christadelphians won’t be able to accept this, and so will have to continue looking at the Signs of Times for fulfilments that seem significant but turn out not to be.
However, I think that we should look for own sources of hope rather than trying to re-interpret hopeful messages from the distant past. We have access to technologies and information that the Bible prophets didn’t even dream of, and we too can try to change history.
It’s part of the retreat of the gods: We have to take control of our own destiny. The alternative is just accepting that God’s Perfect Plan (probably ineffable) is being worked out, and anyone hurt by it is unimportant collateral damage.
What would a convincing prophecy look like?
I think a convincing prophecy would be very specific - it wouldn’t be possible to “apply” it to many different events through history. For example, if the Bible had said that Britain would join the Common Market on 1 January, 1973, vote to leave on 23 June, 2016, then actually leave on 29 March, 2019, then by now we’d know it was wrong (though uncannily accurate…). However, even that might not be convincing, since the existence of a prophecy like that could well affect the outcome.
The prophecies that Christadelphians interpret are nowhere near that specific. What that has meant is that Christadelphians claim credit for any successful predictions they make, while completely ignoring any failed predictions. Does anyone seriously think that Christadelphians would have deconverted in droves if Remain had won the vote? As far as I know, they didn’t back in 1973 and 1975.
Christadelphian prophecies end up a spiritually risk-free game. The rules seem to be that unbelievers should take any correct predictions as a sign Christadelphians are right, but any wrong predictions can be safely ignored because Christadelphians are still right. That’s not in the least convincing, and I’m sure I’m not the only unbeliever to refuse to play that game.
How much can a successful prophecy prove?
Consider the Brexit prophecy: If there really is an omnipotent god who wants to make humanity aware of their existence, they should be doing more, because this isn’t even remotely convincing. It’s not even clear whether the successful prediction of Brexit should be viewed as a triumph for Christadelphian teaching or for British Israelitism.
However, even if we had a very specific prophecy and it succeeded, I don’t think it would prove much. After all, Christadelphians don’t just expect potential converts to agree with them on prophecy, but on doctrine. If a prophecy really was clear, it’s likely that many other denominations with different doctrines would have interpreted it the same way. In fact, we know that John Thomas took prophecy ideas from other interpreters that he didn’t agree with doctrinally.
Finally, I think a correct prophecy would do little to establish the correctness of the Bible as a whole. If, say, an isolated prophecy in Ezekiel were fulfilled, it’s not even clear that this would establish the correctness of the rest of Ezekiel. It definitely wouldn’t do anything to establish the correctness of, say, the Genesis record or of the New Testament appropriation of Judaism.
I am quite confident that the Bible didn’t predict Brexit. Instead, people predicted Brexit, based on somewhat questionable (and sometimes incompatible) interpretations of Bible prophecies. However, I decided to look at it more thoroughly because I thought it revealed deeper principles which affect other Christadelphian predictions as well.
At the moment, I think Brexit in some form is the most likely outcome, but that that will turn out to do nothing to advance Armageddon. And I don’t think Christadelphians with Bible in hand are going to be any better predicting the twists and turns Brexit will take than anyone else.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t just about prophetic games - it affects real people. To many in the UK, Brexit has come to feel like a never-ending saga, with the uncertainty making it harder for them to move on with their lives. And the details of what comes next is also likely to affect them.
If there is a god putting everyone through this chaos for its own purpose, that god is at best uncaring, as are its chosen representatives.
Post-election addendum (13/12/2019)
Well, the latest UK election has come and gone, and the Boris Johnson led Conservatives have a sizeable majority. This makes it even more likely that the UK will pursue “Brexit in some form”. I’ve already seen Christadelphians claiming this as a vindication of their broader Armageddon vision and a sign of the soon return of Jesus.
However, this doesn’t change my position at all, since I already said I thought it was the most likely outcome. I’m glad I published this post before the election, since it makes it clear that my position hasn’t changed: The Bible didn’t predict Brexit, and so Brexit gives me no reason to expect (or fear) the soon return of Jesus and Armageddon.